A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the more hours spent watching television, the more likely children were to be both fatter and less physically active. 89 children from Scotland between the ages of 2-6 years were recruited for the study, in which total energy expenditure and physical activity were measured, and the parents asked to fill out questionnaires detailing television viewing habits. The researchers found a significant association between the number of hours of television watched per day and body fat mass, with every extra hour/day spent watching television associated with a 2.2 pound increase in body fat. However, the increased fatness could not explained solely by the differences in physical activity, and the researchers concluded that additional factors, such as changes in eating patterns associated with television viewing, played a part in this as well. The authors cited other studies which have demonstrated that children who watch more TV eat fewer fruits and vegetables, instead snacking on high calorie foods.
According to a report issued by the Nielsen Company earlier this year, the average American watched more than 151 hours of television/month in the last quarter of 2008, or more than 5 hours/day. While these numbers are not broken down into viewing time for adults versus children, the implications are quite striking when one considers some of the outcomes associated with excessive television exposure. The negative effects of television have been well documented, including violent behavior, reduction in reading, decreases in physical activity, increased obesity, and negative impact both on total sleep time and sleep quality, to name just a few.
Childhood obesity is a major public health problem, and its incidence has increased dramatically over the last decade. When I see children in my clinic because of sleep disturbances, I always inquire whether there is a television in the child's bedroom, and am surprised by how often the answer is yes. Having a television in the bedroom is a big temptation, and the opportunity to watch it unsupervised often leads to this becoming the default, resulting in excessive viewing at the expense of going outside and running around, making music, socializing, or curling up quietly in bed with a book.
So, some suggestions:
- Remove television sets from children's bedrooms
- Limit the amount of television viewing to a fixed number of hours/week
- Provide healthy snacks, such as cut fruit and vegetables, instead of fatty or carbohydrate rich ones
- Lead by example!
Dennis Rosen, M.D.
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